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NEWS ANALYSIS Playing host to Yasser Arafat, U.S. engages in a balancing act

WASHINGTON, March 4 (JTA) — Official Washington engaged in a delicate balancing act this week as Yasser Arafat’s protest against Israeli construction on Har Homa fell on President Clinton’s sympathetic ears. U.S. officials wanted to show Palestinians that Clinton views Arafat as a partner in the peace process. Clinton also wanted to use the occasion to deliver a stern criticism of Israel for its plan to build a new Jewish neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem. But this strategy took careful planning and even sharper execution because while the United States does not confer the status of “head of state” or “head of government” on Arafat, U.S. officials wanted to make him look like one. Arafat raced around town in a seven-car Secret Service motorcade during his two-day stay. He sat in the yellow armchair next to the president in the Oval Office. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright hosted a luncheon for him. But because Arafat is not a head of state, according to U.S. protocol, his limousine did not bear the Palestinian flag. U.S. officials call him “chairman” of the Palestinian Authority, not president. And the White House skipped the customary joint news conference that was afforded last month to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and will be offered in the coming weeks to Jordan’s King Hussein and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. Instead, members of the media had a five-minute question-and- answer session with Clinton and Arafat at the beginning of their meeting Monday. Not only is Arafat not a head of state, he, and most of his delegation, in fact continue to be classified as terrorists under U.S. law. Without regular presidential waivers, U.S. officials cannot even meet with Arafat. Both U.S. and Palestinian officials expressed pleasure at the relationship that developed between Clinton and Arafat. “We have decided to give this relationship — which is not a state-to- state relationship, it’s a unique relationship — a higher profile,” State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said. “It makes sense for us to grow closer to the Palestinian Authority because it is a partner, a friend of the United States.” The only concrete development that appeared to come from the visit was the creation of a new U.S.-Palestinian committee to foster economic cooperation and diplomatic relations. Albright decided to oversee the committee personally. Exactly what kind of cooperative plans the two sides have in mind was not spelled out. But the issue of Har Homa clearly dominated the long-planned Arafat visit. During their hourlong Oval Office session — Arafat’s second with the president — the Palestinian leader pleaded with Clinton to pressure Israel to call off ground-breaking for Har Homa. Last week, Israel officially decided to go ahead with the 6,500- home project in southeastern Jerusalem. Building could begin as early as Sunday. Arafat did not get the explicit condemnation he was seeking, but he did get direct criticism from the president’s mouth. “I would prefer the decision not have been made because I don’t think it builds confidence; I think it builds mistrust,” Clinton told reporters. “I wish that it had not been made,” Clinton said, in his first personal statements on the issue. During a 20-minute session alone, Clinton told Arafat that the United States would bring all its influence to delay building on Har Homa, according to a U.S. official. At the same time, Clinton received a pledge of non-violence from Arafat if Israel goes ahead with the project, the official said. In another apparent nod to Palestinian concerns over Har Homa, U.S. State Department officials in briefings began to use the Arabic name for Har Homa, which is Jabal Abu Ghenaim. In addition to winning support from Clinton on Har Homa, Arafat scored another symbolic victory when the president reiterated the administration’s position on Jerusalem. When asked whether the administration adhered to the congressional law recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Clinton said that because Israel and Palestinians have deferred Jerusalem to a final-status issue, the United States “cannot serve any useful purpose by saying or especially by doing anything which seems to prejudge” the issue. As was the case during his last visit in September, Arafat received a warmer welcome by the executive branch than from Congress. More than 150 lawmakers signed a letter requesting a timetable for implementation of commitments made by the Palestinians in the Hebron accord. The letter specifically asks for a date when the Palestinians will complete the process of rewriting their covenant. The Palestinians initially agreed to take such a step after voting to amend the portions of the covenant that call for the destruction of Israel. But in a reminder that disagreement extends well beyond Har Homa, Arafat refused to take such a step. “When you will have your own constitution, we will draft for you directly our covenants,” Arafat told an Israeli reporter in response to a question at the National Press Club. In New York, Arafat was scheduled to meet with U.N. Secretary- General Kofi Annan and to attend a debate of the U.N. Security Council on Har Homa. He was also scheduled to meet a small group of representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations before heading to Georgia and Texas to meet with former Presidents Carter and Bush.